If you have an eating disorder, Thanksgiving Day can seem overwhelming. But there are ways to ease these feelings and enjoy the day.

The clocks have been set back, the leaves are changing colors, and pumpkin spice is once again dominating the market.

While many people get excited to unpack their cozy flannels and begin planning their Thanksgiving menu, others start feeling like there’s a 50-pound turkey sitting on their chest.

If you have an eating disorder, you may fall into the latter group like me.

The thought of trying to navigate the mounds of food and family expectations can seem daunting. But I’ve learned some tools over the years that can help you navigate this day and rediscover the joy in Thanksgiving.

My recovery journey began in October 2017, when I checked into the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado, to be treated for anorexia nervosa. Since then, my Thanksgiving experiences have required less focus on family activities and more focus on my mental health.

Thanksgiving is arguably the most triggering holiday of the year for those who live with or are in recovery from an eating disorder. Whether you’ve experienced binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa, having an entire day focused on eating can feel like a living nightmare.

I’ve been in recovery for 4 years now, yet every Thanksgiving amplifies that pesky, disordered voice in my head who screams at me to run in the opposite direction.

But I’ve learned how to scream back even louder.

I find that it gets easier every year, but this doesn’t just happen on a whim. I have to be intentional about maintaining my recovery before, during, and after the big day.

From premeal mindfulness exercises to postmeal activities, I’ve learned a few helpful tricks of the trade for keeping my anxiety to a minimum and my recovery top of mind.

Serena Williams didn’t become one of the greatest athletes of all time by showing up to Wimbledon without a strategy. If you want to triumph over your eating disorder on Thanksgiving, consider doing the same.

Here are some tips you can try.

Lean on your team

Whether you get support from a dietitian, therapist, or close companion, try to prioritize putting a plan in place ahead of time that will set you up for success.

This can include:

  • scheduling mindfulness techniques that have historically helped to keep your anxiety at bay
  • identifying potential triggers that could arise the day of
  • having a crisis plan in place in case you need it

Also consider including what to do if you start to feel overwhelmed.

You might want to try practicing vocalizing your discomfort and disordered thoughts with someone you trust. This might make it easier to lean on your support system when you need them.

Start the day with mindfulness

I’ve found that my mindset can influence how the day plays out. This is why I make it a point to start my day with a mindfulness activity.

One of my favorites is writing down a list of everything I’m grateful for. This includes everything from a cozy sweatshirt to having another day on earth. There’s no “right way” to make a gratitude list, so make it your own.

Dress for success (or don’t!)

I feel more motivated and confident when I spend a little extra time on my hair and makeup in the morning.

If you feel your best when your hair is styled, do it. If you feel your best in an old T-shirt and no extra glam at all, then do that!

Feeling comfortable and confident can make a difference in your mindset throughout the day.

Keep your values at the forefront

One of the most important parts of my recovery is reminding myself why I’m choosing it in the first place. What drives your recovery?

Is it the thought of setting a positive example for your kids? Is it being healthy enough to dance at a concert or hike the Tetons?

Whatever your motivation, keep it at the forefront of your mind. Write it on sticky notes and put them in a spot you won’t miss or write it down in your journal as soon as you wake up.

Flip the script

One of my favorite activities to do when I’m feeling particularly triggered is to practice flipping the script that’s going through my head.

If I find myself negatively viewing a certain part of my body, I flip the script and name a reason why I appreciate that part of my body.

For example, I might say, “I like my arms because they let me hug my best friend” or “I’m grateful for my legs because they allow me to dance around the room.”

If I start to view the food on my plate as the enemy, I remind myself of how delicious it’s going to taste and how eating it will give me the fuel I need to live my life.

Stay present at the table

When the time comes to sit down and eat, reflect on how you’re feeling. If talking with others keeps you from falling into a negative thought spiral, try to engage in conversation.

This is where leaning on your support system comes into play. If you know there are certain things that make mealtime easier for you, try to vocalize them to your support system.

Here are a few things I’ve said to my family and friends:

  • “Hey, just a heads-up: This will likely be a more challenging meal for me. If you see me start retreating into my own head, it would be really helpful if you pulled me into a conversation.”
  • “I’m feeling anxious about this meal, and it would be helpful if nobody talked about calories or weight at the table.”

Have an activity planned after you eat

It’s common for the hour following a difficult meal to be the most triggering part of the experience, but this makes it easier to anticipate.

Something that has always helped keep me from using disordered behaviors or having an anxiety attack following challenging meals is participating in some form of a hands-on activity.

Keeping myself — particularly my hands — busy right after eating provides a welcome distraction when my anxiety is peaking and helps lessen the urge to use disordered behaviors like purging.

Here are a few activities I recommend trying after your meal:

  • playing cards
  • knitting or crocheting
  • journaling
  • drawing, painting, or coloring
  • doing the dishes
  • folding laundry
  • working on a puzzle

Maintain the recovery mindset in the days following

Feelings of guilt may begin to bubble to the surface in the days following Thanksgiving — this is not uncommon.

Try to have a strategy for staying recovery-focused if this happens. You don’t have to “compensate” for what you ate after the fact.

Recovery is about consistently choosing to do the next helpful thing. If you slip one day, be gentle with yourself and try to get back on track the next.

And remember that it’s OK to enjoy your food on Thanksgiving! It’s OK to have an extra scoop of mashed potatoes if you want.

It does not invalidate your eating disorder or mean that you’re weak — it means you’re stronger than you can possibly imagine.

For some, Thanksgiving Day stirs up memories of food, family, and football. But if you have an eating disorder, it might also bring up feelings of anxiety and distress.

But it doesn’t have to.

Having a plan in place can help ease those feelings and bring back the joy of Thanksgiving you once felt.

Remember: Recovery doesn’t happen overnight — it happens one day, one step, and one bite at a time. Be gentle with yourself.